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Mourning the Silence of True Liberalism

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We should eulogize liberalism not for its death, but far worse, its silence. For decades, the political philosophy of John Locke has appeared to have strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage only to be heard from no more.

Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberalism could be loosely defined as an adherence to free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, and freedom of religions. Withstanding events such as the Civil War, two world wars, a Great Depression and a Cold War, has understandably altered the face of liberalism. The classical liberalism of the 18th century was not the social liberalism of the 20th century.

But somewhere between the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam protest, liberalism lost its voice -- succumbing to the definitions provided by those on the political right. And by tangible indicators it has yet to regain its voice -- at least not in any comprehensible way.

The silence of liberalism has left a void, filled not by its natural antithesis, Edmund Burke conservatism, but a right-wing derivative that has successfully managed to dominate American political discourse for the past several decades.

Right-wing politics have made the face of liberalism an indefensible straw man that I would not recognize any more than I would be acquainted with what is often passed off as modern day Christianity.

We are hard pressed to hear an elected official self-identify as liberal. The label has been masterfully transformed into a pejorative that to declare: "I am a liberal!" would likely be political suicide in most contested campaigns.

Progressive has become the more palatable, focus group-tested substitute. Though embraced largely by those on the left end of the political spectrum, progressive is a word that can, and has, been embraced by both sides.

Liberalism's silence has come at great cost to the nation.

The gap between the wealthiest Americans and middle- and working-class Americans has more than tripled in the past three decades, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The data in that report indicate that the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest parts of the population in 2007 was the highest it's been in 80 years, while the share of income going to the middle one-fifth of Americans shrank to its lowest level ever.

I'm not suggesting liberalism could have stopped this trend, but its failure to offer a competing narrative contributed toward America naively and unobtrusively believing it could somehow coexist with increased spending, tax cuts and rising deficits.

Whose policies should we blame for the tremendous shift in wealth toward the richest Americans thus perpetuating the systematic squeezing of the middle class?

Those on the margins have been unceremoniously targeted as the culprit of America's economic decline. If there were a vocal liberal voice, Rep. Paul's Ryan ridiculous assertion in response to President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address that "the safety net has become a hammock" would not go so unchallenged.

Even a cursory examination of recent history reveals, assuming there is a hammock, it clearly resides in the domain of corporations.

The most egregious examples would be General Electric and Exxon Mobil.

In 2009, as the housing crisis exploded onto to the front pages, General Electric earned $10.3 billion in pretax income, but paid nothing to the IRS -- receiving a recorded tax benefit of $1.1 billion.

Exxon Mobil, earned a record $45.2 billion profit, paid the most taxes of any corporation, but through a series of subsidiaries located in the Bahamas and Cayman Island, also paid nothing to the IRS.

Record profits and U.S. jobs going overseas are the residue of a political formula that offers deregulation for corporations and anger and frustration for the voter.

This concoction has many Americans in effect voting against their economic self-interest pacified only by fear and a liberal straw man to blame for their anger.

Wedge issues such as abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and illegal immigration served as the jarring sounds of misdirection, while economic policies that benefited the wealthiest Americans silently passed in the night without much notice.

Consider the impact NAFTA has had on working people, the repeal of Glass-Steagall on the banking industry, and the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision on electoral politics.

But we shouldn't blame right-wing policies for carrying out its agenda. It has been the silence of liberalism that has proved to be a less than worthy adversary.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his Web site